Shaking up Early American Lit
Professor Richard De Prospo’s new book contests prevailing scholarship about Early American Literature.
Heretical? Subversive? Maybe groundbreaking?
Whatever the reaction among Early American Literature scholars, Professor Richard De Prospo’s latest book calls into question the very definition of Early American Literature and suggests that conventional scholarship misses the mark on many levels.
Since the publication of De Prospo’s Theism in the Discourse of Jonathan Edwards he has been working to revise American literary history by suggesting that early American Literature is not the crucible in which modern American literature was formed, as generations of scholars have contended.
In The Latest Early American Literature, just published by the University of Delaware Press in January 2016, De Prospo again challenges the idea that Early American Literature is modern American literature in embryo. “One thing I’m trying to do is to restore the independence of Early American literature and to emphasize the differences between it and its modern successors,” he says.
In his oppositional view, DeProspo takes issue with a number of prevailing attitudes in the field, including American exceptionalism, the eco-critical emphasizing of the land, and the “monumentalizing” in general of American literature as an exclusively national literature. De Prospo suggests that the most theoretically promising approach—the differentiating of early from modern texts to illuminate how radically early American texts differ from modern American ones—can both help restore the “other than humanist, theist content” of the early texts and also expose “the power, influence, and pervasiveness of modern humanism” in the later ones.
In the process he takes on the major American Literature anthologies and American Literary histories in the field that, he says, “both marginalize and oversell” early American Literature to undergraduates in their attempts to show how it anticipates Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all the rest of the modern Americanist—still predominantly male—literary canon. Perhaps most unsettling of all to the status quo, he presents Edgar Allan Poe as an early American writer, not the precocious prodigy of modernism’s avant garde that Poe is almost universally considered to represent.
“I was gratified that the book was recommended for publication by the readers for Delaware Press, and I was gratified also that Delaware Press decided actually to publish it, considering its length—nearly 400 pages. It contests a lot of really powerful people in the field who decide what writers get taught to undergraduates. I’ve been teaching versions of what I write about in the book to Washington College students for over 40 years now, and a lot of it has been previously published in literary theory journals that most Americanists don’t read. But all of this becomes much more exposed now that the book’s out. I’m investigating witness protection.”
Reviewing De Prospo’s first book on Jonathan Edwards, Eldon R. Turner, professor emeritus at the University Florida, Gainesville, commented: “De Prospo writes a difficult but interesting book which certainly stands outside the mainstream of literary scholarship… . DeProspo has the happy effect of asking us to listen to Edwards rather than to two centuries of ‘national’ scholarship, and he thus refreshes the texts.”
De Prospo’s new book, Pym, Prometheus, and the Marinere, is forthcoming. In addition to his contributions to Americanist scholarly journals and journals of literary theory, he has also published on American Abolitionism and on African-American literature, and has co-edited and written the “Afterword” for The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His most recent publication is “Michael Colacurcio’s (Un)Godly Letters,” a contribution to the 2016 festschrift A Passion for Getting It Right. Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching.
De Prospo’s final word: “Michael at UCLA, along with William C. Spengemann of Dartmouth, have both been called ‘prophets without honor in the field,’ and they’re in the minority of senior early Americanists who’ve always supported my work. From them I won’t need witness protection.”